Korea – a place where vampires will blend in

In my lifetime I have seen one or two (OK three) vampire stories: just enough to know that vampires are the creatures who are not friends with the sun. Modern day story variations are trying to put vampires in the midst of our modern daily (as in day-time) life and wrap the whole package with a tender love story. But here is the pickle – vampires are not crazy about the sunlight. So, in order not to have it a story of a one-night stand, vampire fans are imploring directors and writers to exert so much of their imagination and compensate for this shortcoming. The typical explanation techniques include, but are not limited to the following: mutation, futuristic drugs, evolution, half-breeds, amnesia – oh, no that’s right, amnesia is a trademark of soaps. Anyway, directors are hoping the public will be convinced in the believability of a vampire walking and falling in love in the middle of the day amidst us, mortals.

I think I have a better suggestion how to resolve this sun-hating predicament in order to keep a vampire walking during the daytime sun-free and yet not jeopardize the believability. Use Korea as the place of setting for the actions! Time of setting can easily be present day. An average Korean, especially a middle aged one, is absolutely petrified of the sun. This is the definite impression that an observer gets while walking city streets in Korea. People are willingly wearing absurdly funny sun-protection gear to avoid contact with even a single sunray. I am convinced that Bella and what’s-his-face (had they had a problem of tolerating the sunlight) can be easily hidden behind sun caps, neck-nets, arm nets and so on.

For more sun-protective gear see my gallery.

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Mystery of Debris and Black Plastic Coverings on Korean Gardens

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Clearly, I am not a gardener, but because my family owns a small garden I was around growing veggies and herbs once or twice. I have a general idea how gardens look at any given month of the growing season. I know about the importance of well-nurtured soil and the benefits of greenhouse structures to support the delicate growth of vegetables in treacherous Springtime. Korean gardeners seriously put my slim knowledge to question.

When we arrived in March, it was the beginning of the gardening season. Taking a bus to Seoul we saw people starting to plow parts of the mountain slopes, digging out black plastic, eroding the view of genteel green mountain slopes that started to emerge. People were cleaning up their land plots preparing for the growing season. There was a pile of debris of sticks, stones, and black plastic next to each plot. I could not help but comparing the looks of Korean vegetable gardens to Wisconsin farms. It seems to me that in Wisconsin farmers worked debris free. I know this is impossible, and they also have a lot of garbage to dispose of, but I never actually saw junk displayed. Instead, Wisconsin farms have manicured lawns and flowerbeds in front yards. The hard work and seeming disarray is hidden, if it exists at all. In Korea the disarray seemed to be a proud part of gardening, and I was surprised to see so much rubble near each land plot because these were not the brand new land allotments. These patches of land have been used for some time for gardening reasons before. So, how come they still had so many stones and tree debris every year to clear out?

The mystery of sticks and stones with the black plastic sticking out from the ground was solved in the following weeks as I continued my gardening observations. Having sewn the crop, gardeners covered up their mound-like veggie beds with the black plastic using stones and sticks to secure it in place. In other words, Korean gardeners built simple homemade greenhouse-like constructions to protect their future crop in the beginning of the growing season. When a plant was tall enough to burst through the plastic, they simply cut a small hole for the stem. This construction also keeps moisture at the roots and does not let weeds overtake the bed.

And the mystery of black plastic was solved.

Underground Korea

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I remember one of the first things my dad told me when we moved to Germany:  With a certain veneration in his voice he announced that at least 50% of “additional” Germany is hidden underground. Now having seen Korean underground facilities I might say this is what I call “an underground country”.

We recently visited COEX expo center. We set off to visit the Coex Aquarium, which is considered the largest aquarium in the world. The guidebook marked Samsung metro station as our destination. We got off at the right stop this time, but we never had to walk outside. The long single metro corridor opened up into a large mall with dozens of shops and cafés in all directions that an eye could see. Various music, distinctive lights and crowd noises were coming from all directions. We noticed a large high-tech touch-screen information stand and came up to it to locate the aquarium. The fish world is securely tucked away at the furthest end of the mall. We would have to pass all restaurants and stores, a movie theater, Kimchi museum, art stages, art galleries, etc. A brisk walk took about 15 minutes one way. The air in the corridors was hot and stuffy; neon colors of store signs were flickering creating a sharp contrast to the soft yellow light of the corridors. I could not help but feeling as if I was in the movie “Total Recall,” walking along a tube-shaped hall at a mall on Mars, and at the next winding turn I would see Schwarzenegger arriving.

Having spent about two hours underground at the aquarium, we were making our way back to the subway. All of a sudden it hit me: “The walk is almost over, we left the house about 3 hours ago, and we have not been outside yet.” At that moment I felt very claustrophobic and short of fresh air. We took an escalator up to the 1st floor of the expo center and walked out from the dimly lighted mall and a buzzing crowd. The streets were virtually empty. Zone 4, where COEX expo is located is considered a relatively new area and was built with the Olympic games in mind, meaning that the streets are spacious, street blocks are extensive: the entire area with it’s contemporary architecture gives out an awe of people’s accomplishments and general magnitude. With that said, the streets were nearly empty with no people to admire this general grandeur and cleanliness because everyone was below the street level browsing the shops. I suppose this is the reason why the street level remained so pristine with its clean ostentatious high-rises.

 And this is what I would call living in the underground.

Age of School Admission in Korea

“Strawberry” Kindergarden

My son is a December-born child. In the US he was attending his last year at a daycare center. He could not go to pre-K because in September he was still 3 years old. I was happy about my son staying in a daycare environment with naps, story time and daily playground runs. Like many moms of December-born kids, I felt he was just not ready mentally to go to pre-K with a backpack. Besides, we lived in a school district where the resources of public schools were severely cut by a new state legislature, which resulted in large teacher-student ratios and stiff competition for open spots in “good,” “safe” schools. Three months ago, when we came to Korea and began looking for daycare arrangements for my son, it turned out that in Korea he is 6 years old, and he should be in Kindergarten with kids who have already completed their first year of kindergarten. Kindergarten kids take yellow buses to school at 8:30am (a homeroom teacher is present on the bus collecting and bringing kids back). Students have 2-3 classes per day plus many daily activities such as crafts, story time, field trips, walks, birthday celebrations, 3 meals, etc. There is an option of keeping a child at school till 3:00 or till 6:00 pm for working parents.

Overnight (quite literally), my son grew 2 years older. We quickly had to get used to the idea of sending him off on a yellow bus with a backpack. Now he has to work on projects with the kids who have been using crayons and scissors at school for the past two years. Add to that the fact that kids learn how to use chopsticks and you will have almost perfected fine-motor skills and the kids here are basically ready to write at the age of 4. I will be the first to admit the sad truth that, having come from a different environment, at this point my son’s skills of holding a pencil or working with small objects are lagging behind.

My Korean friend tried to cheer me up after I shared that my son is not good at coloring. Hoping this will make me feel better, she said, “This means nothing that he does not draw well, because in Korea parents usually know what the upcoming curriculum for the next year will be like, and they hire tutors to learn it in advance, a year ahead.”

Kindergarden entrance

Perhaps it means nothing on some level, or maybe it does. I noticed my son gets unusually frustrated when he colors in the presence of children. In fact, he refuses to try when other children are around him. However, when we practice at home alone, he is more tolerant of this activity. Go figure, what means what and at what age it becomes important.

Korean Age vs. Western Age

Insa-dong, Seoul

When in the first days of the semester I was trying to get to know my students better, I was struck at how good all Koreans look: young, slim and healthy. One of my student’s in her self-introduction mentioned, “I am 50 years old.” My jaw dropped because she did not look more than 45 to me, and that is in the “worst-case scenario.” I am sure there are many various reasons that contribute to the luminescence of Koreans’ skin, but I found a very unexpected contributor to their youthfulness.

As it turned out Koreans count their age differently. When a child is born he/she is considered 1 year old. At the turn of the calendar year that child automatically turns two. Sometime that year the child celebrates his or her Birthday, but nothing changes in terms of counting the years. Birthday is just a celebration, not meant for counting years. Only when the calendar turns to another year, this child, along with the rest of the country, will turn another year older. In other words, some of the Koreans, who say I am 50, may, in fact, be only 48!

This system is fun especially when you are trying to impress a Westerner with the freshness of your skin. But the same system works for school and daycare admissions, and that may be the first reason why Korean schools perform highly. In the next blog I will explain the school admission further.